Brewing Ingredients, Part Four: Hops

by Sophie Nelson

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Thanks to the IPA craze a few years ago, every beer drinker – and many who swear they will never be beer drinkers – are familiar with hops: the third ingredient in brewing. Hops contribute important characteristics to beer through balance, aroma and flavor. 

Although hops are one of the four main ingredients in beer today, there was a time when they were unknown. Before the discovery and cultivation of hops, brewers used an herb-and-spice mixture called gruit instead. It provided flavor, aroma and bitterness to beer, which would otherwise have been an overly sweet beverage courtesy of the malt-derived sugars.

Governments controlled the creation and sale of gruit, which is one of the first examples of the control and taxation of beer in civilizations, but beer taxation can be traced back as far as 1740 B.C. in the code of Hammurabi. 

Around A.D. 700, hops began to be cultivated, but it wasn’t until about 1000 when they were first used in beer. After another 600 years, hops had successfully replaced gruit in beer, and gruit control was lost. Incorporating hops further restricted where beer was brewed and consumed.

Hops were grown only between the 35th and 55th parallels, both in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Most of Europe – other than the Scandinavian countries – falls in this region. In North America, this includes the middle and northern parts of the U.S. and the southern part of Canada.

Door County falls beautifully in the middle of this area, and it’s actually home to a few hops growers. When you’re driving around, you might see a plot with hops – which are vine plants, or, more specifically, bines that grow little, green cones called catkins – growing straight up lengths of twine. Breweries and beer-related items frequently use hop graphics, so you’ve probably seen hops’ likeness.

Important growing regions that fall between these latitudes in Europe are Germany, the Czech Republic, England and Belgium. In North America, most of the big growing regions are in the Pacific Northwest, especially Yakima Valley, Washington; and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. 

Hops, like wine grapes, have terroir qualities, meaning that climates and soil composition affect their qualities of taste, aroma and bitterness. Therefore, classic hops from Germany that are brought to the U.S. will not display the same characteristics, down to a chemical level. This creates a very interesting game when trying hop-forward beers from different countries. 

My fellow American IPA drinkers all remember the West Coast IPA boom that occurred a few years ago. During that time, brewers made clear beer that was highly bitter. For many, in fact, the goal was this: The more bitter, the better. The overwhelming flavors from those West Coast IPAs were grapefruit and citrus, with a bit of pine and resin thrown in. Those tastes are actually unique to the U.S. and come from the classically American hops called Cascade, Centennial and Columbus – often referred to as the Three Cs. 

In Europe, however, hops aren’t nearly as bitter. Germany is especially known for mild hops that instead have perfumey, floral and minty characteristics. Such mild hops work well for German lagers that are low in citric bitterness and focus instead on smoothness. 

English hops are described as earthy and herbal. With an English India Pale Ale versus an American IPA, not only are the recipes different, but the entire flavor composition is milder and more woodsy. 

Australian and New Zealand hops have a strong tropical fruit characteristic with varietal differences. New Zealand hops also have a strong dank characteristic that’s similar to marijuana. After all, hops and marijuana do come from the same family. 

Try out various hop-forward beers from around the world. Take note of the country and the hops varietal, and see whether you can pick out the different flavor characteristics. Who knows? You might even find a new favorite hop!